On eve of tornado anniversary, President Obama speaks at Joplin graduation

Will Klusener

Joplin High School’s Class of 2012 got a special treat at its commencement ceremony Monday night in Missouri Southern State University’s Leggett and Platt Athletic Center. President Barrack Obama and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon attended the event, which was held a day before the first anniversary of the EF5 tornado that destroyed a third of the town on May 22, 2011.

Joplin residents eagerly anticipated the president’s return visit – Obama spoke at a memorial ceremony at MSSU’s Taylor Performing Arts Center about a week after the tornado struck – and observers lined the highway near Joplin Airport to watch the arrival of Air Force One. Inside the packed arena, graduates, their families and friends lucky enough to get a ticket to the ceremony were brimming with excitement hours before it began.

It was an important day for the graduates, who spent their senior year attending classes in the city’s Northpark Mall and hastily constructed temporary buildings after the tornado completely destroyed the school. In total, the storm destroyed 10 of 20 district buildings, including Joplin East Middle School, the Franklin Technology Center, Irving and Emerson Elementary Schools, and the old South Middle School, which was a transitional facility that was vacant at the time. The tornado caused more than $100 million in damage to the district, left more than 4,200 students without a place to go to school and killed seven students and one teacher. On Tuesday, the Joplin R-8 School District will break ground on four new schools after the city passed a $62 million bond measure.

At the ceremony, the 124th in Joplin High School history, a raucous cheer erupted from the audience as the 431 graduates first lined up at the doorway, and then again as they entered the arena to take their seats. Principal Kerry Sachetta began by introducing Nixon, whose heart he said is with the city, and then Obama.

“He helped us unify our city and recover from our tragedy,” Sachetta said. “This is truly a day to remember for all the graduates and their families.”

After he introduced the remaining honored guests, including Superintendent C.J. Huff, who received thunderous applause and a standing ovation, Sachetta recognized the seniors, who he said had proven themselves ready for the next stage in their lives.

“They did not let anything stand in the way. … They let the world see what they are made of, and what they are made of is very special,” Sachetta said.

There was a wealth of speakers on the docket Monday night. Class president Chloe Hadley used humor, telling the graduates they could all be proud to call themselves members of the North Park Class of 2012. Three seniors, Derek Carter, Siri Ancha and Michelle Barchak spoke about looking to the future, how their teachers given them the tools to survive and how the past year showed the unity of the city.

“The past year did not create what we know as the Joplin spirit, but shined a light on it,” Barchak said.

Senior class principal Dan Hueller told the students how honored he was to serve them over the past year, and Supt. Huff told them their families, the Joplin family and the global family that poured in to help rebuild, believes in them.

“Joplin has became America’s high school, and today you are America’s graduates,” Huff said, adding that he wanted to give them two pieces of advice.

“The first is, if at first you don’t succeed, do like mother told you to in the first place,” he said before breaking into tears and a standing ovation. “And don’t forget that no matter where you are or what you do, your Joplin family loves you and believes in you, and we are so very proud of you.”

In his address, Nixon told the students that their achievements were the result of hard work and community.

“This is a community of optimism, of believers, with fight ... that with hope in its heart and steel in its spine has come back stronger than ever,” Nixon said. “You’ve lost many things, but never your heart and soul.”

Schools are a unifying source that are the bonds between teachers and students as well as between generations, Nixon continued, and the city came together to construct temporary buildings so classes could start on time

“That will forever stand as a symbol of the best in our nation and the best in us,” Nixon said. “You have learned, perhaps too soon, that life is a fragile thread that binds us all together. From great diversity, great blessings grow.”

Then it was Obama’s turn to speak. It was clear from the raucous cheering of the crowd that Joplin residents had not forgotten Obama’s last visit, and that they knew he had kept his word to stand by the city every step of the way.

Obama acknowledged the guests on stage, then got to the point. It is the job of commencement speakers to keep it short, he said, but some reason the graduation organizers had given him a little more time than usual.

“The other job is to inspire, and as I look out at this class and across this city, what’s clear is that you’re the source of inspiration today, to me, to this state, to this country, and to people all over the world,” the president said.

The road that led the graduates to this point took a turn last year that none of them could have imagined, Obama said, and they likely have relived those 32 minutes countless times in their heads. But the story of Joplin isn’t just what happened that day, he continued. It’s the story of what happened the next day, and the day after that and all the days and weeks and months that followed.

“Class of 2012, that story is yours, its part of you now,” Obama said. “You had to grow up quickly, and you learned at a younger age than most that you can’t always predict what life has in store.”

The students had learned that life can involve heartache, struggles and loss, Obama said. But they also learned that they have the power to grow from their experiences and can define themselves not by what happens to them but by how they respond. And they also know that they will encounter greed, ignorance and hate.

“But you’re from Joplin, so you will remember, you will know, just how many people there are who see life differently,” he said.

People came from as far away as Japan who wanted “to pay it forward,” Obama said. Even the University of Missouri football team sucked it up and went to work cleaning up Kansas Avenue. The tragedy of the tornado had shown them how many good people there are in the world and that it is there duty to follow their example.

“Make sure in your own life that you pay it forward,” Obama said. “Everyone has a lot more pride in their town. Some of life’s strongest bonds are the ones we forged when everything around us is broken. Some of you may leave Joplin, but I’m confident Joplin will never leave you. My hope for all of you is that as you begin a new (stage in their lives), you will bring that spirit of Joplin to everything you  do. As a reminder that we’re not meant to walk this road alone

It will be their job to make sure the United States is a country where every child has a good education, everyone can find a job and the country has a solid energy future, the president said.

“The road has been hard, and the day has been long, but we have tomorrow, so we march, and we march together, and you’re leading the way, because you’re from Joplin,” Obama said, and from somewhere in the back a man shouted “Bless you, Mr. President!”

The Morning Sun